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Can Joe Biden's transition team become a progressive administration?

Progressive frustration with some of the president-elect’s appointments is premature, but the incoming administration must do more than avoid the worst excesses of the outgoing one.

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President-elect Joe Biden is not yet in office, but his choice of team is already garnering both compliments and condemnation.

Biden and his vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris, have released details of who will staff the transition. These are the people with whom Biden and Harris are working to ensure a smooth start once they take office in January (a process being hampered by Trump administration officials’ refusal to cooperate). The list includes seasoned diplomats, professors and experienced ex-officials – experts in matters of governance, in other words, which many noted was a welcome change from the Trump administration. 

Further announcements this week about who will hold which high-profile positions have had a similar effect of restoring confidence in the competence of appointed officials. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, for example, will, if confirmed, be Biden's ambassador to the United Nations, having previously served as President Barack Obama's second-term assistant secretary of state for Africa, in a move expected to delight career officials. John Kerry, formerly Massachusetts senator and secretary of state, will be the special presidential envoy for climate and will sit on the National Security Council, which means Biden administration will mark the first time an official dedicated to the climate crisis has sat on the Council.

But the list did also include some names that raised eyebrows. That the transition team included senior staff from Lyft and from Uber, and two people from AirBnB, brought criticism that the Biden administration would be too corporate. That it included someone from WestExec Advisors – a strategic advisory firm that reportedly counts a major defence contractor among its clients and whose co-founder, Michele Flournoy, is rumoured to be nominated to be the next Secretary of Defense – sparked concerns that the Biden administration will be too tight with the military-industrial contacts. Antony Blinken, another of WestExec's co-founders, will, if confirmed, be Biden's secretary of state. He was Biden's national security adviser in the first term of the Obama administration and went on to be Obama's deputy national security adviser and then deputy secretary of state in Obama's second term.

Critics also accuse Jake Sullivan, a former security aide of Biden’s who will be joining the next administration as national security adviser, of cashing in between his spells in government: he joined Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical risk firm, after working on Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016. Whispers that Rahm Emanuel, the wildly unpopular ex-mayor of Chicago who took a hard line against immigration reform during the Obama administration, is being considered for transportation secretary were met with disgust. And so some on the left are perhaps unsurprisingly already frustrated with, if not already writing off, the incoming Biden administration. 

On the other hand, centrist Democrats complain that the left is putting pressure on the wrong people. When the Sunrise Movement tweeted that it was protesting in front of Biden's campaign office to demand he fulfil his climate commitments, many replied asked why they weren’t instead applying pressure to Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader who is likely to be antagonistic to any sweeping climate legislation.

It's not that either side is wrong, exactly (though there is something intentionally obtuse about the idea that a group shouldn't protest the side more likely to listen to them). It's that the those agitating for overdue reforms are being too impatient with an administration that hasn’t even started, and with their own ability to influence it, while those in the centre-ground are expecting too much patience.

Leftists taking the agency review teams as proof that the Biden administration can’t be pushed in a more progressive direction are counting themselves out too early. Biden is not himself a progressive. That he is not surrounding himself with progressives is not a surprise. To say that it's pointless to exert pressure from the left because he's put people from Uber and Lyft in his transition team is to not give progressives, who have moved the “Overton window” on everything from Middle East policy to student debt, enough credit.

Those who would have the left criticise only the right – McConnell, not Biden – meanwhile, are missing the point, which is that being "better than Trump" is an insulting standard to which to hold an elected official. If Biden, in office, does not scar us with tweets propagating disinformation and inciting violence that will not make him a successful president. Many on the left who turned out on 3 November were more concerned to depose Trump than to elect Biden, but it is not unreasonable for them to demand that Biden use his position to do more than not be Trump.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

Boris Johnson has been given the "reset" opportunity he wanted

The Prime Minister's tougher, adapted tiered system for England is a last-ditch attempt to smooth out his government's coronavirus policy for the home stretch

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Boris Johnson has announced a tougher system of regional, tiered coronavirus restrictions in England, to be brought in when the England-wide lockdown ends on 2 December until the end of March.

The Prime Minister has been widely reported to be hoping for a “reset” of his premiership after the dramatic departures of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, and this moment is maybe the closest thing he will find to one.

When Johnson reluctantly announced a second national lockdown on 31 October, it was the first time in months that his government had a single, coherent coronavirus policy. Since the easing of the first lockdown, the health response and economic response could have been the work of two different administrations, as Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak each pursued their respective interests and agendas with no decisive Prime Minister to make the two approaches cohere. It was only when Johnson was advised that the NHS could be overrun without tougher and urgent action that he finally brought the two coronavirus policies into line, with the blunt instrument of a national lockdown in England, and the economic support of the original furlough scheme to match.

Now, having had nearly a month to prepare for the promised ending of the second lockdown, this is the Prime Minister’s chance to reset the government’s coronavirus policy for “one final push until the spring”, with an approach that belatedly addresses many of the criticisms of the earlier tiered system and that is guaranteed to be more coherent from a health/economy perspective than the last time, given the extension of the furlough scheme until the end of March. 

The new coronavirus restrictions will, for one thing, be much tougher: not only will more areas be placed in higher tiers, but the rules themselves have been strengthened, in a belated attempt to address the long-cited concerns from the government’s scientific advisers that tiered restrictions on their own would not be enough to reverse the trend of increasing cases, only to slow their increase.

The 10pm curfew is also to be abandoned, after months of haranguing over the lack of evidence for the measure. Last orders will still be at 10pm but customers can drink up until 11pm, as the government adopts what has essentially been the Welsh curfew system all along, and as Labour called for in England in mid-October.

There will also be a uniform set of rules for each tier, mitigating some of the controversy and confusion over negotiated, tailored restrictions for individual areas.

And finally, as Johnson was keen to emphasise, “it should be possible to move down the scale of tiers” under the new tougher system, as the top levels of restrictions, combined with increased testing, are expected to continue to reverse the growth in cases. This is the point of most concern for those who have been under local lockdowns and the top tier of restrictions for months on end; they and their politicians want a guarantee that moving down the scale is a possibility in the immediate term, and not just when the restrictions are lifted for everybody at the end of March. 

It has always, theoretically, been possible to have a successful, regional approach to coronavirus restrictions, but the previous system of local lockdowns didn’t work over the summer, and the jury is out over whether the much-criticised tiered system pre-lockdown was beginning to work. The second lockdown has given Boris Johnson the gift of time to address the familiar criticisms of that system, in the hope that the home stretch of the government’s coronavirus response will be its most successful period yet.

But there is a final hurdle for the Prime Minister, and that is Christmas. A politician famed for disliking delivering bad news and with a well-known “cake and eat it” approach to policy-making has to find a way to make his desire to let people celebrate Christmas with their loved ones cohere with all of his own warnings about not failing at the final hurdle of our coronavirus response. 

That announcement on guidance for Christmas is expected tomorrow (Tuesday 24). It is the final test for a Prime Minister who has only belatedly brought his health secretary and Chancellor onto the same page, and who is resolving familiar criticisms of the government’s tiered approach in England at the eleventh hour of our pandemic response. This time, the Prime Minister’s challenge isn’t making the health and economic responses cohere, but his owns instincts with his better judgement.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

Rishi Sunak is right to worry about Boris Johnson’s incompetent spending

The Prime Minister’s financial planning is anything but conservative.

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It sounded like a joke. Speaking of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak told the Sunday Times that he would like “to take his credit card away”. Beneath the humour, however, the Chancellor was making a deadly serious point: the Prime Minister has to stop spending like there is no tomorrow, or he will bankrupt Britain.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor will use his spending review to announce more money for the recruitment of police officers and nurses, building schools and hospitals, strengthening border controls, improving the penal system and GP appointments. But he will also reveal the true state of the British economy, and his aides say it will be “scary”.

The economy is expected to contract by 11 per cent this year, its worst performance in three centuries. Spending will exceed revenues by more than £350bn, a deficit unprecedented outside wartime. The national debt will exceed £2trn, roughly 105 per cent of gross domestic product, which is the highest level since World War Two. All that is before the negative consequences of Brexit kick in next year.

Much of this collapse in the country’s finances is an unavoidable consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government had no choice but vastly to increase spending on the NHS, the furlough scheme and bailing out normally viable businesses and services. And it is right to invest in infrastructure projects that will generate growth and jobs, and to seek to “level up” while interest rates are so low.

But it would be reassuring if Johnson showed at least a hint of recognition of the parlous economic situation the country is in. As it is, he seems to have discovered a veritable forest of magic money trees. No cheque is left unsigned, no grand projet is too extravagant to embrace. He opposes tax increases. He rules out a return to austerity. He blithely promises billions here and billions there, often out of political expediency and with a cavalier disregard for the rules of accountability and the usual checks on public expenditure.

Last week alone, he promised the biggest expansion of military spending – replete with a fantastical new “space command” – since the height of the Cold War, pre-empting the government’s long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy and ignoring the MoD’s dire record on procurement. The timing suggested the announcement itself had less to do with equipping the armed forces than it did with resetting his image after the departure of Dominic Cummings, and currying favour with President-elect Joe Biden.

The day before that, Johnson promised £12bn for his “green industrial revolution” – another plank of his reset designed to appeal to Biden. The plan might have enjoyed rather more credibility had he not ignored the freeze on fuel duty that has now been in place for nine years.

The government has spent well in excess of £200bn countering Covid-19, but an alarming amount of that has been wasted: the failed £12bn test-and-trace app, the £7,000 a day paid to consultants, the £3.5bn paid out in fraudulent furlough claims, the £670,000 that Kate Bingham, the vaccine tsar, spent on PR.

Most egregiously, there were the lucrative government contracts for personal protective equipment awarded to a Miami jeweller, a pest control company, a cannabis research firm and assorted cronies. In a damning report last week, the National Audit Office revealed that £10.5bn had been doled out without any competitive tendering, much of it to “suppliers” with connections to Tory politicians.

The list goes on. Rightly or wrongly, Johnson is ploughing ahead with HS2 despite a price tag that has soared past £100bn and a rationale somewhat undermined by a year in which 40 per cent of the country have shown they can work exclusively from home. 

By the year’s end, the government will have spent more than £8bn on Brexit preparations, according to the Institute of Government. That sum includes all those aborted information campaigns as the UK’s departure from the EU kept slipping, and the £14m that Chris Grayling famously gave to a start-up ferry company that owned no ferries.

Add in lost economic growth and the total Brexit cost will exceed £200bn, according to research by Bloomberg Economics. That is almost as much as all of Britain’s payments to the EU for the past 47 years combined.

There is the £400m that the government invested in a failed start-up company that makes satellites – one of Cummings’s pet enthusiasms (not to mention the pay-offs to Sonia Khan, a special adviser, and the various permanent secretaries whom he ousted from their jobs). Alok Sharma, the business secretary, overrode his civil servants’ warnings about the wisdom of that investment.

On 16 other occasions this year, ministers have issued similar “ministerial directions”, overriding their civil servants’ warnings about spending projects, compared to just three such directions issued during the entire 2010-15 coalition government.

This government’s spending reflects the personality of the prime minister himself. It is undisciplined, ill-thought-out, lacking in rigour or restraint, and too often focussed on tomorrow’s headlines rather than the country’s long-term economic interests.

Sunak, an economically literate grown-up, understands the gravity of the situation. He knows a terrible reckoning lies ahead, and that some very painful and unpopular decisions will be necessary. Apart from obstructing Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals, our overgrown schoolboy of a Prime Minister evidently does not.

Johnson rules out a return to austerity. He defends the “tax lock” on VAT, national insurance and income tax, and the “triple lock” on state pensions. He recoils from raising the capital gains tax – a move Tories would hate. Famously indecisive, he has to date accepted only a freeze on public sector pay, and cuts to the relatively soft target of foreign aid. He may lead what was traditionally the party of fiscal rectitude, but continues to believe he can have his cake and eat it.

Although Sunak’s line about taking Johnson’s credit card sounded like a joke, it could well portend a seismic clash between two men with radically different outlooks on the responsibilities of government.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

Can the UK's creaking supply chains deliver an end to the pandemic?

The AstraZeneca vaccine is great news. But we must ask how the government plans to secure delicate medical treatments for the entire country.

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After the announcement today that the AZD1222 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca – the “Oxford vaccine” – is 90 per cent effective against Covid-19 when given in two doses, we now have three powerful vaccines against the global pandemic. The UK has ordered 145 million doses of these treatments. This is of course great news, but it is far from the end of the pandemic. The UK and the world now face a vast logistical challenge.    

Pfizer was first to announce the results of its phase three trials. Its supply chain team has been making plans for as long as the company has been working on a vaccine. The company will manufacture 50 million doses of its vaccine in Kalamazoo, Michigan, this year, and a further 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021. Every day next year, 12 trucks will leave the factory to connect with 20 flights to deliver to finishing and distribution facilities around the world. These will take on the job of in-country distribution and the tricky “final mile” deliveries to hundreds of thousands of vaccination points and an army of trained vaccinators.

In the case of Pfizer’s treatment, all of the above must be conducted while keeping the vaccine at -75°C. If this temperature is not maintained, it can be rendered useless or even dangerous.

The makers of the second vaccine, Moderna, have said that it remains stable at -20°C, a temperature that many companies will be experienced in maintaining in the “cold chain” supply lines used to transport food. The Oxford vaccine, which uses a more established technology, can be stored at fridge temperature. But in every case we are looking at the need to develop supply chains at a scale and pace never before seen.   

This technically demanding effort will require supply chain excellence. That’s not how we described the UK government’s PPE supply chain efforts earlier in the year. This time, professionals will be needed, not plucky amateurs with spreadsheets.

But what supply chain professionals already know is that, like many industries, the global logistics environment that has been ravaged by the pandemic. The grounding of many passenger airlines has reduced air cargo freight capacity by almost half, sending air freight rates rocketing. And this is before we see the impact of moving billions of doses of fragile, temperature-controlled vaccine around the globe as quickly as possible.

Regular trade that previously relied upon air freight will have to take a back seat next year, and the greater dependency this will place on ocean and ground transportation could have profound implications. Supply chains will slow, inventories and shortages will grow. The most obvious problems will develop at pressure points such as the ferry terminals at Dover and the container terminals at Felixstowe, particularly if a no-deal Brexit becomes a reality.
 
The scientists developing these vaccines will be familiar with the concept of the “rate-limiting step”: the stage of a chemical reaction that determines how quickly the reaction can happen. It is usually the slowest part of the reaction that sets the rate. This is also true of supply chains: the most difficult part sets the pace for the rest of the process.  

For any vaccine that needs to be kept very cold, the pace will be set by the availability of specialised equipment to transport it. These cold-chain containers will need not only to pass through the complete supply chain, but to return to the start of it. This means delay anywhere in the chain will cause shortages all along it. Pfizer has developed a network of “freezer farms” and GPS-tracked “thermal shipper” boxes to keep the vaccine stable, but these resources will be subject to extremes of demand.  
 
In the UK, there is also the question of organisation. The country has contracted to buy 355 million doses of vaccine from seven different providers. Each comes from a different company and potentially from a different country. Without a single organisation to plan the delivery of these goods, it will be impossible to ensure sufficient capacity at every stage and create a fully joined-up, end-to-end plan.

For those vaccines that are manufactured abroad, the UK will face the problem that demand will dwarf supply. This is another factor that often disrupts supply chains, as the lucrative possibilities offered by middle-men attempting to source the same product interfere with trading relationships. 

If the UK government has not already done so, it should urgently charter, in advance, air and ground capacity on the necessary trade lanes and establish “bridges”. If we leave individual organisations to wait and hope for individual shipments, we will see a repeat of the UK’s catastrophic failure to secure PPE early in the pandemic. It is crucial that the lessons from other countries’ successful management of their PPE supply chains are learned in the UK.

The good news is that the digital capabilities of today’s logistics organisations are up to this task. The real-time tracking of all shipments using supply-chain “control towers” that co-ordinate all movements, end to end. The industry has spent 20 years perfecting the “final-mile” deliveries of e-commerce, making fantastically complex systems easy to use at the consumer level.

Vaccinating billions of people will require another order of flexibility, however. Commercial businesses struggle to operate “fully flexible” supply chains and make a profit, but this is a familiar requirement of military supply chains during war. Perhaps military planning for this effort should be involved from the start, and not appealed to when it goes wrong.

This will be a national effort, and the worst mistake we can make is to fail to recognise the scale of the challenge from the outset.

How should the government approach Christmas Covid restrictions?

The government favours a top-down approach to coronavirus restrictions, but it should consider communicating risks instead.

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England will leave lockdown on 2 December – at least, some parts of it will. Under plans due to be announced in parliament later today, England will return to the system of regional lockdowns: but with tougher rules in place than those prior to the national lockdown. 

Hospitality venues will be closed in Tier 3 areas, other than for delivery and takeaway, while in Tier 2, inter-household mixing in closed spaces will be banned (other than for work meetings and within bubbles). 

Now the United Kingdom's four governments (UK, Scottish, Welsh, Stormont) are in talks about what rules to have in place for Christmas. 

The reality, because of the important and necessary freedoms to move house or for urgent travel, is that if people want to come together for Christmas, they will. The trouble is that the British government has started to view social distancing solely as something applied from above – which people must be forced into following – when the reality is that to work, it requires passive consent from below. 

Democracies across the world have already seen this difficulty played out around times of their major secular and religious festivals (and the reality is that the reason why Christmas is a logistical nightmare for the government has very little to do with the minority of practising Christians in the United Kingdom, and everything to do with the much larger group of people who celebrate Christmas in a non-religious way or with a token visit to their parents' church on the day itself). 

The government's focus should be on clearly laying out of the risks involved – and it should start by acknowledging, for instance, that while we've all had a hard year, if you are lucky enough not to live alone or with strangers, you should at the least think about celebrating Christmas where you are. 

That would be a change in approach, of course, from the government's preferred approach of blanket bans and instructions from on high. But it might be a more effective approach than any single set of restrictions or limitations over the holiday period. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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